Crooks, Drain, Freeman, Mukasonga, and Philyaw

Short Stories in January, February and March

Whether in a dedicated collection or a magazine, these stories capture a variety of reading moods.

This quarter, I returned to some favourite writers and also explored several new-to-me story writers.

I used to work within walking distance of The Distillery District and I still enjoy walking the cobblestoned streets there (although haven’t done so recently, with COVID measures to mind). It’s frequently served as a backdrop for historical TV and films, too (Chicago might be the most famous?) and it was a pleasure to find the illustration heading Roseanne Carrara’s short story “Finder” in the summer 2019 issue of Taddle Creek (which was dedicated to pulp fiction). It’s a very short story, but it reminded me how much fun it can be to read stories about familiar places. Most of the stories I’ve been reading this quarter, though, have invited me to new places.

Jacqueline Crooks’ The Ice Migration (2018) is a collection of linked stories which draws together the descendants of Africans enslaved by sugar plantation owners in Jamaica who work alongside indentured labourers from Calcutta. “Their nails were black with the same dirt.”

The first two “chapters” are a map and a family tree, glossy pages with arrows and connecting lines, to show movement across continents and across time. The stories themselves are short and scenic, like photographs in an album. Except with a strong auditory component: the dialogue is rich and cadenced, and the first-person pieces are also rooted in voice.

Readers move from a “half-eaten plate of pickled tongue and potatoes [that] lay by the side of the rusty Remington typewriter on the desk” to a “dark wood-panelled room, burning candle, oil paintings” with a surgeon, Pilates teacher, policewoman, accountant, and grief counsellor meeting in a Spiritualist church in 2010.

In straightforward language, Crooks explores the legacy of movement, with an occasional poetic flourish. (“They were leaning into the darkness like gravestones”: that’s one of my favourites.) Readers who appreciate brief and scenic stories will find much to enjoy here.

Jonathan Escoffery won the ASME Award for Fiction for his short story published in The Paris Review, “Under the Ackee Tree” (2019). His Jamaican plain-speech and immersive prose style immediately engages readers in the story of a young man who shares his dreams with his father: “A my son a si’ down an’ sew panty an’ frock? Wha’ kind of little-gal fantasy that?”

Soon, it “don’ feel then like you have too many options at all”. And, then, with the birth of a child, those options narrow further. When violence increases in the neighbourhood (this is the time in which Marlon James set his expansive novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings), his parents encourage him to apply for an American visa sponsored by an uncle. “You can’ see the whole of we island turn into war zone? And, This what we gained independence for? Them say, Better g’wan save yourselves.”

And some things are saved. His boys learn about “ackee and saltfish and try explain why it Jamaica’ national dish” and eventually his house “finally finish the way you want, with in-ground pool and bar and more fruit trees flanking your ackee tree”—“the house you always dream ‘bout”. B

ut then Hurricane Gilbert strikes back home and “you can think ‘bout nothing but how the people back home devastated” and other patterns, too, are difficult to arrest. (The story is reprinted in The Best American Magazine Writing 2020.)

These linked stories in Jasmon Drain’s Stateway’s Garden (2020) are mostly set in “the biggest concrete building on Chicago’s South Side, on the fourteenth floor of the Stateway Gardens projects”, painted a “grayish-white color that looked like dirty sheets bleached repeatedly”.

Readers step inside 3536 S. Federal, Apt. #1407 to witness Tracy’s coming-of-age, but this story is also one of community: “Our buildings were cities within the city.” (There’s a lot of historical material, with some striking images, about these housing projects, though finally demolished in 2007.)

His mother works and the collection’s first story invites readers to join younger Tracy in his mother’s workplace for one memorable day, but mostly the stories hinge on the kind of freedom (emptiness) that results from fending for himself. His older brother and a couple of girls also figure (for me, the stories about the boys resonate more deeply) and, as they grow, the pacing varies, from quiet and ruminative expository stories to faster paced and scenic stories (including one which I stayed up late to finish—so compelling).

The world-building is detailed and the observational powers astute: peering into a single apartment offers a remarkable view of Tracy’s world while simultaneously reminding readers that lives like Tracy’s unfold elsewhere. On the fourteenth floor, in that building on South Federal, in the neighbouring buildings in Chicago, in housing projects across Illinois, across the United States, and beyond its borders.

Contents: B.B. Sauce: Found on Ogden and Central Park; Questions by the Stove; Wet Paper Grass; Solane; Reaganomics, Left Lying in the Road; Middle School; Interpreting Dolton, at thirteen; Shifts; The Stateway Condo Gentrification; Stephanie Worthington; The Tornado Moat; Love-Able Lip Gloss; Epilogue: The Battle of Segregation, 1958-2007

First, there’s the fact that you can slip this volume in a pocket: how secret is that. Then there are the kinds of secrets you’d expect (but maybe not from “Church Ladies”): infidelity, hotel bookings, and the like. But there are also instances in which characters in Deesha Philyaw’s The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (2021) quietly agree to make their own reality behind closed doors.

“Normal according to who…?” one character asks. Sometimes these are proper secrets, the kind that cause pain. Other times, there’s just an appreciation that circumstances have altered cases: “And then I laughed, even though I felt like I shouldn’t have. Even though nothing was as it should be.” [Not-Daniel]

A young girl smells like bubblegum and a mother watches Dallas and Falconcrest on Friday nights. Fathers are scarce, sisters are abundant, and there’s a thread of mother-daughter stories throughout.

These are “Church Ladies” like K.D. Miller’s collection All Saints is a bunch of Church Stories: technically, yes, but other titles would have served too. In “Dear Sister”, the letter writer says: “Well, it’s not like any of us got to chose in the beginning. But we do get to decided how much space to give him now.” And that’s at the heart of this collection.

Because finally, on the page, Deesha Philyaw makes space for characters who might have been relegated to the margins of another collection: the yearners and the mourners, the weirdos and the warriors.

Contents: Eula, Not-Daniel, Dear Sister, Peach Cobbler, Snowfall, How to Make Love to a Physicist, Jael, Instructions for Married Christian Husbands, When Eddie Levert Comes

Inspired by reading Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York for my #HereandElsewhere project, I was hooked straightaway by this bit in John Freeman’s introduction to Tales of Two Planets: Stories of Climate Change and Inequality in a Divided World (2020): “What if we believed, stupidly or hopefully, that every living life mattered equally? That it was possible to act as if this belief were a value worth defending, to tell stories as if it could be observed?”

The concept of twinning tales by well-known and acclaimed writers (like Edwidge Danticat, Margaret Atwood, and Aminatta Forna) with writers I know but not well (Anuradha Roy, Sayaka Murata, and Pitchaya Sudbanthad) and writers I didn’t know (Mariana Enriquez, Ligaya Mishan, and Lina Mounzer) also holds a strong appeal.

The combination of poetry and fiction, with narrative-driven essays and reportage caters to a variety of reading moods and the cumulative effect is one of a global community of thinkers engaged with this fundamentally important matter of survival.

“In a world divided between those who knew, and were therefore prepared for what was about to happen, and those who did not, her country was finally, possibly, a little bit lucky.”
Tahmina Anam “The Unfortunate Place”

Scholastique Mukasonga’s Igifu (2010; Trans. Jordan Stump, 2020) contains just five stories, in prose so clear and direct, that you can fall between the words into her world. The Tutsi characters living in Rwanda inhabit cities and countryside, they love and lose—they survive.

In “The Curse of Beauty”, she describes Rwanda like a small town: “Everyone knows everything that goes on in Rwanda—we might as well all be neighbors. And if they don’t know, there’s always someone to invent what they should.” A place where “rumors were enough, even if the stories sometimes conflicted”.

Whether she writes about a few grains of sorghum or a mother’s wooden ladle, or the devotion between a young boy and his cow, these stories are rooted in universal truths: “It’s good to be afraid. Fear keeps us awake. Fear lets us hear what carefree people never do. You know what the abapadris say at catechism, how everyone has a guardian angel looking after them? Well, our guardian angel is fear.”

In a world in which fear is an angel, some are more vulnerable than others. “We’re Tutsis, sorrow hangs over all of us, and it lands heaviest of all on the women. There’s nothing we can do. Maybe things will be different one day.” But there remains a thread of hope. As Margaret Atwood once said, pessimists don’t write books (leaving it in the hands of realists and optimists).

Readers unfamiliar with recent events in Rwanda are introduced via passages like this: “She herself didn’t know the word, but in Kinyarwanda there was a very old term for what was happening in her homeland: gutsembatsemba, a verb, used for talking about parasites and mad dogs, things that had to be eradicated, and about Tutsis, also known as Inyenzi, cockroaches, also something to be wiped out.” [“Grief”]

They are powerful and necessary and true. But there are many other aspects to these stories which make them a pleasure to read. Like this passage from “The Glorious Cow”:

“He probably thought Intamati was an auspicious choice for me, he must have hoped she would bring me good fortune. I knew what to do. I stroked her neck, murmuring her name: “Intamati, Intamati!” I carefully wiped off her dung stains with a handful of dew-damp grasses. I smoothed down her coat until it was silky and glistening.”

This is the kind of collection that I expected to read as a representation of this author’s work and, then, move on to other books. Instead, I found myself checking the library catalogue and requesting everything else she’s published in translation and debating whether my school-girl second-language skills would allow me even a glimpse of her new novel, currently only available in French.

Contents: Igifu, The Glorious Cow, Fear, The Curse of Beauty, Grief

And you? Any short stories lately?